Although it’s only a recent motto, “A Little North, A Little Nice” deftly captures the spirit of life in Richmond Hill since its early inception.
Located in the southern part of York Region and containing a population of over 200,000, Richmond Hill is one of the GTA’s popular commuter suburbs that combines a slower pace of life with close proximity to the big city.
While modern suburban development is what makes it a comfortable and quiet place to live today, Richmond Hill has in a sense always been true to the slower pace of life.
While the name “Richmond Hill” wouldn’t grace the lips of residents for decades to come, its first settlers were the Munshaws : a family of 7 from Pennsylvania arriving in the spring of 1794 in search of a place to call their own.
They cleared themselves a plot of land in the modern-day Elgin Mills area where they welcomed the first European-born resident of Richmond Hill – their daughter Susan. Despite a large and growing family the isolation proved too great and they relocated to an area closer to Highway 7.
Over the course of that year several other settlement attempts were made, but issues with land claims, crop failures, and citizenships drove them all to be abandoned. The first permanent residents of the area came a few years later to occupy the Northeast corner of Yonge St. & Major Mackenzie Dr.
Since the land was allotted and parcelled, a successive string of settlers were granted lands by the Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe in order to develop the area. These early residents were either being rewarded for military service with land or otherwise believed to be capable of fostering prosperity in the growing settlement.
The initiative was part of the Lieutenant Governor’s special plan for Yonge St. which excluded crown and clergy reserves and made all of Yonge available to settlers.
It’s largely due to this plan that Yonge St. is the artery connecting the northern GTA and that we still have stretches of it which feel like small town main streets. Once such place is just north of Major Mackenzie Dr. at Centre St.
By the turn of the century, English and German speaking settlers who came to the area were calling it “Miles’ Hill” after a prominent local settler Abner Miles and his son James.
The younger Miles excelled as a community leader, serving both as a justice of the peace and a lieutenant during the war of 1812. Although his name is no longer attached to the place he worked so hard to support, a testament to his sustained effort stands near the Yonge/Major Mackenzie intersection.
Miles invited a Presbyterian minister to set up a parish for the community and the church they built would eventually turn into Richmond Hill Presbyterian Church, which serves the community to this day.
While there’s no conclusive record of exactly when and how Miles’ Hill changed to “Richmond Hill,” several explanations exist.
One story has the name coming from the city’s first schoolteacher, Benjamin Bernard. Apparently homesick for his native Richmond Hill in England, Bernard would lead his students in performances of the song “The Lass of Richmond Hill.” The song’s popularity spread, perhaps as far as to have a city named after it.
Another proposed origin for the name comes from Governor General Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond. It’s said that following his personal visit to the settlement in 1819 the village was renamed to Richmond Hill in his honour.
Regardless of the origins of its name Richmond Hill was coming into its own as a prosperous farming community by the mid 1800’s, due in large part to the trade and travel infrastructure provided by Yonge St. As a sort of mid-point between York and Holland Landing, Richmond Hill proved a convenient stop-over for stage-coaches making the trip between the two other towns.
Indeed, by 1836 Richmond Hill had everything a town needed – a store, a schoolhouse, a church, a tavern, a post office, and more. It was this latter feature which cemented the name “Richmond Hill” into the history books.
Since the postal district needed a name, the postmaster used Richmond Hill and from then on the name has been officially recognized.
Now appearing on maps and gaining wider exposure, Richmond Hill saw a real population boom. During this period the town was seeing annual population growth of up to 9%.
Of course with increased demand, Richmond Hill real estate value went up and attracted more affluent settlers who in turn built larger homes and estates.
The 19th century was a period full of trials for Richmond Hill and its residents, most of which stemmed from the characteristics that continue to make it a unique and appealing place to live.
Whereas most settlements in this era of Canadian history grew around a primary intersection, Richmond Hill grew along the linear stretch of Yonge St. Shops and businesses sprang up along this thoroughfare and as a result Richmond Hill doesn’t have a historical downtown district like many other Ontario towns.
Because this one street was so important to Richmond Hill’s sustained growth, modernizations and developments affected the city for better and for worse.
Businesses, predominantly inns and taverns, would have boom and bust cycles. Initially, Richmond Hill’s location proved an asset for its economic growth since travellers leaving Toronto would naturally stop over looking for a meal and a good night’s rest.
However, the grand Yonge St. project wasn’t without its problems. Financially, it was disastrous and even the toll charged to travellers wasn’t keeping it solvent. When the Ontario, Simcoe, and Huron Railway opened in 1853, Richmond Hill sustained a significant loss in Yonge St. traffic and had to adapt as travellers now had an alternative route for travelling north of Toronto.
The railway line had a stop in Richmond Hill, but it wasn’t centrally located. It was about 6 kilometres east of Yonge St. along the then-unpaved Major Mackenzie Rd., closer to where Headford lies today. Certainly not a journey weary travellers would be keen to make when seeking respite from their journeys.
While traffic on Yonge St. declined by up to 25% when the railway opened and a decline in business was felt, there remained a market for travellers coming from neighbouring communities or travelling by coach. Local trade continued and prevented other neighbouring towns from swallowing up Richmond Hill into their municipalities.
The turn of the century brought more trying times to Richmond Hill, but things changed almost immediately upon the arrival of the electric railway. Although carriage-trade businesses failed, the rest of the economy grew by 35% over the course of just a few years.
The Town of Richmond Hill made a deal with Toronto and the railway companies to sell power from their Bond Lake power generator, solidifying the town’s economic prospects. Bond Lake Park was even the first park in Ontario to have electric lighting.
As this new form of transportation extended north and proliferated throughout the area with new routes for both freight and passenger transport, it seemed inevitable that Richmond Hill would become a suburb of Toronto.
Despite all of this prosperity, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that modern amenities reached many of its parts. Areas annexed into Richmond Hill when the Regional Municipality of York was established in 1971 were still without water mains, sewers, or streetlights, and connected by dirt roads.
That would soon change as Richmond Hill saw explosive population and real estate growth which continues to this day thanks to globalization and immigration. In fact, during the mid-70’s Richmond Hill had some of the most expensive real estate prices in Canada.
Curiously, Richmond Hill wasn’t officially re-classified as a city until 2019 even though it experienced such explosive growth over the last 30 years. During the 90’s it had the fastest growth rate in Canada.
Although Richmond Hill has come a long way from a small rural settlement it’s still known as a quiet, comfortable place to raise a family in Ontario. Some of its younger residents might go as far as saying life in Richmond Hill is boring – especially next to the allure of Toronto – yet one thing Toronto can’t offer them is the large homes, backyards, recreational amenities, and close sense of community.
Residents can take advantage of the numerous local amenities like pools, skating rinks, and sports fields or take a drive to places like the Blue Mountains where skiing, hiking, and nature abound. It offers a highly-diverse and family oriented community that’s welcoming for lifestyles of all kinds.
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